Young and restless in the House

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Thursday, January 01, 2009

SalemCapital.jpgYoung and restless in the House


SALEM In the last legislative session they were known as the “Five under 35.” This year their ranks have grown and they have a new name: the “10 under 36.” They’re the House’s youth caucus: A band of mostly Democratic legislators — many of whom are friends and confidants — who are seen as a rising force in Salem. Their agendas mesh with each other; education, sustainability issues and health care are cited as top priorities. As a united block they could conceivably wield some influence in the 2009 session.

But their power as a caucus is far from guaranteed. “We have to be careful in terms of how we conceptualize age in how it determines things in the Legislature,” says Robert Eisinger, a political science professor at Lewis & Clark. The upward trend in young legislators doesn’t constitute a mandate from voters, he says. Since there’s no historical analysis of legislators’ ages it’s not possible to extrapolate what the increase means about Oregon’s electorate or state government. Additionally, Eisinger argues that because there are no distinct youth-specific legislative issues that the 10 under 36 could claim as their own, the votes of young lawmakers on well-worn issues like health care will be seen as no different than their older counterparts.

Jules Kopel-Bailey, 29, is an economist and a newly elected Democratic representative from Portland. He challenges the assertion that the youth caucus will be amalgamated. He points to the 2007 session and how the Five under 35 were able to successfully push for a progressive agenda. “And now there’s more of us,” he says. “It’s not just that we’re young. We bring a lot of different skills to the table — policy making, community organizing.”

They also bring another powerful force to the table: a unified front that was forged by friendship. Brent Barton, a 28-year-old Portland lawyer and newly elected Democratic representative, contends that while history remembers individual political stars, it’s caucuses in Congress or the Legislature that have held the real power. Over the course of a conversation in early December, Barton mentioned five members of the 10 under 36 that he’d hung out with, listened to music with or had lunch with over the previous few days. 

“How this caucus manifests itself politically remains to be seen,” he says. “But these people were close friends before the session and they will be afterward.”            

ABRAHAM HYATT


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